November 3, 2006

For the Vecinos

Las Cuatro Milpas, A Cozy Cocina with
Deep Bowls of Beans, Tortillas

By El Vecino

There’s three places I take my out-of-town friends when they come visit San Diego: Chicano Park because I like to torment the tourist with a relevant history lesson before entering my city, Mission Beach because somehow green, sludgy water and gang fights makes them feel like they’re in America’s Finest City, and Las Cuatro Milpas because I’m sure not going to take a bunch of fly by night riff raff into my Nana’s house for the best beans and tortillas.

The latter is what I want to talk about because a recent visit to this cozy cocina sparked a sense of nostalgia in me. ‘Nostalgia’ because this place isn’t so much a restaurant, but a visit to our granma’s kitchen (Mexicans I suppose) and the youthful guarantee of scoring a tall stack of homemade tortillas, the best whether singeing hot or ice cold.

In fact, I’m still massaging the tips of my floury fingers as I type this up.

Big steal pots, black comals, blue flames spewing out of an old stove, and salsa that’s hot enough to be warned about, Las Cuatro Milpas owners Petra and Natividad Estudillo have kept this place up with the basic nutritional necessities in the culture: a bowl of beans, a bowl of rice, a bowl of chorizo, sometimes all of these merged into one bowl, hand-rolled flour tortillas, quesadillas de tortillas maíz, chicken or beef tacos duros.

Look here, the place was opened in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression Era, a pre one-slice-of-cheese per day, by choice, (slash) America’s Next Top Model stick figure culture. So, yes, they use lard, probably the big brick that comes in the red box. That’s manteca if you know what’s up, but what are you really trying to stay alive for if you’re not really living, right?

The second great thing about the menu is they serve up these authentic meals for what, right now, seems to be Great Depression prices. In my most recent visit, I ordered two beef tacos, one chicken taco, a small bowl of chorizo with a spoonful of rice, and two sodas for only $11.25. Think that’s a lot? Well, just try to finish a bowl of beans, then come and tell me what you think “a lot” means.

I’ve been coming here long enough to finish that.

Not really, that’s me and my wife.

If you’re a newbie, I’d recommend a small bowl of the beans to start, chorizo or rice mixed in is your call, and when you become one of the loyal patrons who wait in the one o’clock lunchtime line that trails down half the block and your stomach starts to expand, then graduate to the large. These bowls are deeper than they seem and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s often an insult to decline an offered meal from la rah-zuh, and more of a slap in the face to leave leftovers only to be thrown out … “when there’s los pobres starving in Chiapas no less!”

Saturday morning menudo is also a popular item, not so much my thing, but the line does double for this extravaganza, probably the only reason you’d know there was a successful restaurant there besides the sign.

From the outside it’s just an old building. Inside it’s basically a big cocina, or cafetería, long rectangular tables, checkered picnic tablecloth, concrete floor, and one of the most comfortable ambiences you’ll find in a restaurant. Wait in line like everyone else. White collar gringo with tie to your right, me to your left, the homeless guy making roses out of palm leaves on the curbside, and a cold hard stare from the mujeres behind the counter waiting to know what you want. Don’t be sensitive. They only mean business, and their friendliness is manifested on your plate.

Las Cuatro Milpas is located at 1857 Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan. It’s open Mon through Sat, between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Be there before noon if you’re in a hurry. Otherwise mingle with the locals in the twenty minute line. Surrounded by parking, good luck on that though. Expect no more than $10 per person, including tip.

La Prensa’s For the Vecinos is a new weekly column that highlights homegrown San Diego indy businesses, favoring restaurants. If you can put up with a few minutes of El Vecino checking your scene, send us an invite at raymond.beltran @covad.net.

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